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Shays’s Rebellion: The Excuse for a Centralized American State

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[A review of Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle by Leonard L. Richards, 2003] During the Revolutionary War, the individual states and Congress had issued fiduciary notes to finance US military operations. Fiduciary notes were paper money the government promised to redeem in coin at some point in the future. When the future arrived ...

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[A review of Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle by Leonard L. Richards, 2003]

During the Revolutionary War, the individual states and Congress had issued fiduciary notes to finance US military operations. Fiduciary notes were paper money the government promised to redeem in coin at some point in the future. When the future arrived in the 1780s, the holders of these notes demanded redemption, and the states, including Massachusetts, were raising taxes to pay them off.

As the story is told, many farmers were too poor to pay their taxes, so the courts were sending them to jail and seizing their farms. The farmers were also in debt to merchants who had sold them goods on credit. With the closing of the British West Indies to American trade, the merchants, under pressure from their creditors, were now demanding payment.

To avoid paying their debts, the story continues, Daniel Shays and a few other “wretched officers” from the Revolution led backcountry rabble to shut down the courts. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin called out the militia to put a stop to the uprising. When they failed to get the job done, he turned to wealthy Bostonians to fund a temporary army.

Led by General Benjamin Lincoln, the army stopped the insurgents from seizing the federal arsenal at Springfield in late January 1787, then crushed the rebellion permanently a week later in a surprise attack at Petersham. Though the top rebel leaders fled to other states, most of the others eventually returned to their farms. Bowdoin agreed to pardon the rebels if they signed an oath of allegiance to the state, which the vast majority did.

Although the insurgency ended in the rout at Petersham, “Shays's Rebellion” has lasted to this day as a propaganda tool for state power.

Recruiting Washington

Government-friendly versions of the insurgency spread throughout the states and upset many elites, including George Washington, who was enjoying a peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon. David Humphreys, one of Washington's former aides living in New Haven, told him the uprising was due to a "licentious spirit among the people,” whom he characterized as “levelers” determined “to annihilate all debts public and private.”

According to Washington's trusted friend and former artillery commander General Henry Knox, who was planning to build a four-story summer home on one of his Maine properties, the insurgents wanted to seize the property of the rich and redistribute it to the poor and desperate. In a letter of October 23, 1786, Knox told Washington the rebels “see the weakness of government” and thus feel free to pay little if any taxes. According to Knox, the rebels believed that since the joint exertions of all protected the property of the United States from Great Britain, it rightfully belongs to all. The rebels, Knox explained, believe that anyone who “attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equity and justice, and ought to be swept [from] the face of the earth.”

Such comments didn't surprise Washington. He had been buying land in the Virginia backcountry for over 40 years and owned some 60,000 acres. The people who migrated to that area often ignored his property markings, helping themselves to his timber and settling down. This was a common problem of large landowners throughout the backcountry of every state. In Washington's judgment, these folk were “a wretched lot, not to be trusted, and certainly not to be the bone and sinew of a great nation.”

On November 8, 1786, James Madison wrote to Washington saying he and other officials had taken the liberty of nominating him to lead the Virginia delegation at a May convention in Philadelphia. The upcoming convention, as Alexander Hamilton had stated, would discuss how “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

But Washington had misgivings. A convention held two months earlier at Annapolis had failed when only five states sent representatives, Virginia not among them. Would the one in Philadelphia bomb and leave his reputation tarnished? Besides, he had cited health problems (rheumatism) as a reason for not attending a triennial meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati in Philadelphia, to be held at the same time as the convention. How would it look if he now accepted Madison's offer?

On March 19, 1787 Knox wrote Washington hinting that (1) he would be given the president's chair at the upcoming convention, and (2) he would not be presiding over some middling conference of officials tinkering with the “present defective confederation,” but instead would lead a prestigious body of men as they created an “energetic and judicious system,” one which would “doubly” entitle him to be called The Father of His Country.

While Washington absorbed those prospects, he thought about the British prediction that American-run government would soon collapse. It was especially disheartening to see it falter in Massachusetts, the state with the most “balanced” constitution, where the influence of the unwashed was supposedly kept in check. Washington, Madison and other elites suspected their “transatlantic foe” was working secretly with Daniel Shays to help fulfill their prophecy. And if left unchallenged, the upheaval would spread to other states, where “combustibles” like Shays were waiting to explode and wreak anarchy.

As Washington told Lafayette later, he could not resist the call to help establish “a government of respectability under which life, liberty, and property” were secure.

Shays's Rebellion, then, went from a problem to an opportunity. It was used by certain elites to pry Washington from retirement and send him to Philadelphia, where his status as America's foremost icon bestowed a noble splendor on their power grab. Staunch opponents forced them to compromise, and the document they created would soon be graced with a set of amendments that initially limited their power.

Nevertheless, the new constitution was a big step forward for conservatives, who now had a government strong enough to protect them from troublemakers like Daniel Shays and his gang. The bad guys lost, the good guys won, so we have been told.

A Closer Look at the Rebels

Richards decided to write a book on Shays's Rebellion when he discovered by accident that the Massachusetts archives had microfilmed the signatures of the 4,000 men who signed the state's oath of allegiance in 1787. Since many of the insurgents also included their occupations and hometowns, he was able to gather more information about them with the help of town archivists and historians.

Richards makes some strong points about why the standard story of Shays's Rebellion as an uprising of debtor farmers does not wash.

1. The western counties of Massachusetts as a whole did not rebel against the state, nor did the vast majority of poor farmers. Of the 187 towns that comprised the five counties in which the courts were shut down, a mere 45 towns provided almost 80 percent of the rebels.

2. The rebels were repeatedly described in the newspapers as “destitute farmers” or “debt-ridden farmers.” Although the number of debt suits in the 1780s skyrocketed, Richards found that “there is no correlation — none whatsoever — between debt and rebel towns.” Only two of the most rebellious towns ranked among the top 10 towns in suits for debt, but three of the least rebellious towns were also among the top 10. At the time of the rebellion, Daniel Shays owed money to at least 10 men. But of those 10, three were rebel leaders. For every rebel who went to court as a debtor, another went as a creditor.

3. Shutting down the courts in Massachusetts had been a form of protest at least since 1774. That summer in the western town of Great Barrington, 1,500 men shut down the Berkshire County Court in response to British oppression. Patriot leaders applauded it.

4. Private indebtedness was common with backcountry folk in all states, not just Massachusetts. Ordinarily, it was not a problem. As Richards points out, these debts were often circular, as one neighbor might owe labor to another, who in turn might owe cordwood to a third, who in turn might be indebted to the wife of the first neighbor for her services as a midwife. Debts were expected to be paid, but without going to court.

Massachusetts wasn't the only state to experience a surge in debt suits. In 1786 creditors in Connecticut took over 20 percent of the state's taxpayers to court. Yet there was no comparable revolt in Connecticut.

The Massachusetts War Debt

It wasn't debt that triggered Shays's Rebellion, Richards argues, but the new state government and “its attempt to enrich the few at the expense of the many.” The most glaring instance of this abuse was the decision of Massachusetts to consolidate its war notes at face value.

Even when issued, the notes traded at about one-fourth par and later declined to about one-fortieth face value. Many soldiers were paid in these notes and out of desperation sold them at about one-tenth their value. Boston speculators swooped up eighty percent of these notes, with forty percent of them owned by just 35 men. Every one of those 35 men had either served in the state house during the 1780s or had a close relative who did.

Legislators praised the speculators as “worthy patriots” who had come to the state's aid in its time of need. But these men did not buy the notes directly from the government; they bought them from farmers and soldiers at greatly depreciated prices, who were now being taxed to redeem them at full value. The speculators, most of whom had stayed home during the war, would now benefit at the expense of veterans.

James Bowdoin had run for governor in 1785 in place of the state's perennial governor, John Hancock, who had declined to run for reelection because of gout. Bowdoin held some £3,290 in state notes, and his supporters were conservative merchants and fellow speculators. The election was bitter and close and eventually decided in the legislature. In his inaugural address, Bowdoin pledged to honor the state's debts in full with new taxes.

Initially, the legislature tried to collect the taxes with impost and excise duties, but then added a poll tax and property tax. The poll tax taxed every family for each male 16 years or older. Poll and property taxes were going to pay 90 percent of all taxes, while impost and excise duties would account for the other 10 percent. Thus, a regressive tax ensured a wealth transfer from farm families with grown sons to the pockets of Boston speculators. As Richards observes, “Taxes levied by the state were now much more oppressive — indeed, many times more oppressive — than those that had been levied by the British on the eve of the American Revolution.”

Petitions Ignored

From 1782–1786, small communities throughout western Massachusetts had pleaded with the legislature to address their concerns. Their petitions had always been polite and deferential, but their meaning was clear: the rural economy was in bad shape, and the new government was just making it worse.

In the summer of 1786, the legislature once again ignored their petition and adjourned. Newspapers in some towns counseled patience, but in other towns, such as Pelham, the people decided stronger action was needed. In mid-July Pelham town fathers met and began coordinating with nearby communities to hold a countywide convention. They decided to find “some method” of changing the state constitution and thus getting a more responsive government. They met on August 22 and set forth 17 grievances, six of which necessitated a new constitution. They also agreed to break up the court the following week in Northampton as their method of getting the legislature to reconvene.

Thus, Shays's Rebellion began as peaceful petitioning and escalated into violence only after the state repeatedly ignored the petitions.

The Constitution of 1780

The Shays' Regulators, as the rebels described themselves, were outraged over the state's new constitution and the manner in which it had been ratified. A meager and partisan convention had approved it without their consent.

In general, it enhanced the power of the rich and well born. Though it included a bill of rights, white male taxpayers had to be worth at least £60 to vote, which was £20 more than their colonial charter under the king. It allowed the house to conduct business when only 60 members were present, favoring those most able to attend during the winter, the mercantile elite in Boston. It also established an independent judiciary and a senate, neither of which were answerable to the people, as well as a clause forbidding any amendments to the constitution for at least 15 years.

Defenders of the Rebellion

Not all state leaders opposed the Rebellion. Moses Harvey, a legislator from the small town of Montague, had been a hero in the war and was now a captain in the local militia. He encouraged his men to join the rebellion. William Whiting, Chief Justice of Berkshire County, had been a dependable conservative who had received a number of prestigious appointments and was a scion of a wealthy family. Writing under the pen name “Gracchus,” in honor of the Gracchus brothers from the days of the Roman republic, Whiting published a letter accusing the leadership of enriching themselves at the expense of ordinary farmers. He also faulted citizens for their “inattention to public affairs for several years past.”

On October 20, 1786, the Continental Congress authorized the addition of 1,340 men to its 700-man army because the Massachusetts militia was unable to suppress the rebellion. Congress decided it would be foolish to tell the public the real reason for raising additional troops, so they announced an Indian war was pending in the Ohio Valley.

It gave Boston legislators a good laugh, especially those from western towns. But the sharpest critic was Baron von Steuben, the Prussian drillmaster who had trained Washington's troops. Writing under a false name, the baron pointed out that Massachusetts had 92,000 militiamen on its rolls. Theoretically, the militia system excluded the poor and transient. Members were men of substance with deep roots in the community. They were men of property. With such a force at its disposal, why would the Massachusetts government need outside support? There was only one plausible reason, von Steuben concluded: the numerous militias supported the rebels, whereas the present system of administration had the support of only “a very small number of respected gentlemen.” If that was the case, how dare Congress support such an “abominable oligarchy.” The recruitment effort failed, leading Bowdoin to hire an army without legislative authority.

A Major Revisionist Work

I believe readers will find Richards's Shays's Rebellion stands with DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln and Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism as a work of outstanding scholarship exposing the conservative stake in bigger government. Strict constitutional government has a refreshing appeal in today's world because of the Beltway monster we have in its place, but we should bear in mind the lessons of Richards's research. The constitutional movement included the familiar ingredients of plunder, crisis, and lies to further government growth. The original Constitution was a step forward for big government.

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